Titirangi’s trees – Death by a thousand cuts …

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Futurewest Kauri tree

By Greg Presland

I wrote previously about how the Government is having another attempt at removing blanket tree protection that Titirangi’s and Laingholm’s trees currently enjoy.

As previously described an attempt was made in 2009 when the Government tried to remove blanket tree protection except for “trees or groups of trees” specifically identified in the district plan.  The fear at the time was that this could mean that most of the local trees would lose their protection.

Auckland Council sought a declaration from the Environment Court to test what effect the law change had.  In a comprehensive decision Judge Jackson ruled that trees in the managed natural areas constitute a “group of trees” and are therefore protected.  Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when this decision was released.

The Government has responded however by introducing measures that will negate the effect of this decision.

Given that the Government was legislating to change a decision the Auckland Council had obtained I would have thought that some prior consultation would have occurred.  I understand however that Auckland Council was not consulted on the change before the bill was introduced.  This is incredible.  Auckland’s view was obvious because of the application for the declaration.  Why the Government did not think it should talk to Auckland before overturning the benefit of the decision that Auckland had obtained is hard to understand.

I wrote to the Minister and sought various information about the bill.  The response was, to put it mildly, perplexing.

Firstly the regulatory impact statement for the bill does not specifically refer to the removal of blanket tree protection.  It does refer to “correct[ing] drafting omissions” and “provid[ing] clarification”.  I asked the Minister if removal of tree protection fell within one of these categories.

The Minister replied as follows:

I proposed the 2012 Amendments … in order to reinstate the original policy intent of the 2009 … Act, which was to replace “blanket” tree protection rules in order to reduce unnecessary cost burdens to landowners.  Previously, resource consents were required in order to prune or remove individual trees, regardless of their condition or value.  The changes in 2009 sought to make tree pruning and removal easier, while ensuring councils retained the opportunity to identify and protect notable groups of trees with high amenity value.

In the case of Waitakere this is not actually correct.  Pruning of no more than 20% of a tree’s mass in an arboreally approved manner each year is already permitted.  And removal of trees of less than 2 metres in height is allowed.

The Minister then referred to the Environment Court declaration and said that it had effectively reinstated blanket tree protection.  She stated:

[i]n order to align the law with the original intent of the 2009 policy changes – and strike a balance between tree protection and costs to landowners – it became necessary to introduce a definition for “groups of trees” that councils may protect.  The proposal is a technical change and better reflects the ongoing policy intent of provisions of the 2009 Act.

She stated that specific individual areas such as Titirangi were not considered to be necessary “as local councils will be able to protect notable groups of trees if they are identified by precise location … Councils may also opt to protect notable trees by listing them individually in district plans“.

Her comments suggest that individual trees or a group of trees on a property provide nothing more than some amenity for the property itself.  But there are three problems with this:

1.     Her thinking shows no appreciation that the bush in Titirangi form part of an organic whole and even partial removal can cause damage.
2.     The contribution of trees to stability of the land is not considered.
3.     The contribution of the forest to amenity values is not considered.

Firstly in relation to the damage that even partial clearance can cause the Waitakere Ranges the Council Report Protection of the Waitakere Ranges contains the following passage:

Vegetation clearance can impact on the amount of food available to birds and other native wildlife. It can also affect the remaining vegetation and wildlife habitat by fragmenting the area of vegetation, isolating wildlife and reducing their habitat. Fragmentation usually increases the length of bush edges, allowing more light and wind into the bush area, and creating conditions that allow weeds to establish.

So the piecemeal reduction in the quality of the bush that will occur if these changes are passed will have an adverse effect on the forest.

There might be an argument that bush clearance can still be regulated and controlled by the District Plan even if trees cannot but I cannot see it working.  If an individual tree can be felled then why not an individual bush.  And who is going to particularise each piece of vegetation on their property in the hope that the bush can be protected.

In relation to stability Waitakere City Council’s records hold many references to the importance that the bush has on the stability of the area.  For instance the Council document Building in the Bush contains the following passage:

Much of the land in the Waitakere Ranges is stability-sensitive. A geotechnical assessment is often required when developing a bush site. You can find out whether your site has stability issues by getting a Project Information Memorandum report (PIM) or a Land Information Memorandum report (LIM) from the council.

Building foundations with minimal earthworks are preferable in the bush, and keeping as much vegetation as possible on the site also aids stability.

In other words we muck around with bush and trees at our peril.

In relation to amenity values the phrase has its own statutory definition.  “Amenity values” are defined under the RMA as “those natural or physical qualities and characteristics of an area that contribute to people’s appreciation of its pleasantness, aesthetic coherence, and cultural and recreational attributes”. For Titirangi trees and the bush clearly contribute.

Section 7 of the Act states the following:

“In achieving the purpose of this Act, all persons exercising functions and powers under it, in relation to managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources, shall have particular regard to … the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values.”

The District Plan says the following about the effect of bush clearing on amenity in the bush area:

Any bush clearance associated with the establishment of dwellings has the potential to contribute cumulatively to the fragmentation of vegetation, decreasing the intactness of the natural character of the landscape and breaking up the continuity of indigenous vegetation. These have been identified as key qualities of the outstanding landscape value conferred on the Waitakere Ranges.”

It appears that if enacted all persons exercising functions and powers under the RMA will have to have particular regard to the maintenance and enhancement of amenity values except as are provided by Titirangi’s trees.

The RMA allows communities to design district plans to regulate all sorts of issues from the banning of nuclear power stations to the provision of roads and houses and shops, from the control of storm water run off to the control of any activity that has an effect on the environment.  Except if this amendment is passed for the protection of Titirangi’s trees.

Could it be that Titirangi’s forest is now facing death by a thousand cuts?

There is an online petition here that you can sign and submissions close February 28, 2013.

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